To serve you better

Step right up —
your  stealth  national ID card
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What is it now the people are saying
Near enough to the ribs of life
And the flowing face of vast waters
So they will go on saying it
In deepening paths of action
Riding toward a slow dull decree
"You do this because
You can do nothing else"

Carl Sandburg, "The People, Yes"


Right before our very eyes, America is morphing into a police state — just as surely and steadily as our state driver's licenses are morphing, with little debate, into de facto national identity cards or, to use polite language, into elements of a national identification system. The terrible events of 9/11 unleashed the totalitarians, who are now able to act publicly on their belief that there is a compelling state interest in a total surveillance society.

Heartlanders are never surprised to hear that such strange and revolting outrages are underway on the Bicoasts, but some of us find it a little more difficult to munch happily away on our roastin' ears when such alien stuff crops up right here to home — you know, where "through the sycamores the candle lights [used to be] gleaming," and all that? Sad to report, the banks of the Wabash are no longer far away when it comes to totalitarianism. What's unclear at present is whether this amounts to yet another triumph of the New Federalism run out of Washington, with all its bribery and intimidation, or whether Hoosierland has now bred a sufficient number of its own cornfed, pork-stuffed little Stalins.


In July 2002, under the auspices of an entity called the Indiana Counter Terrorism and Security Council, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles greatly upped the ante in the great game of getting or renewing one's license to operate a motor vehicle. Operating a motor vehicle on government roads, we have always been told, is a privilege and not a right. To secure that privilege, more documents will now have to be proferred.

It's reported that 30 other states are working through an industry group known as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to tighten-up licensing standards in their jurisdictions. The AAMVA has formed a "Card Design Specification Task Group" to provide a model card that will meet a national standard. In Indiana, the BMV, predictably, implemented the new policy with only a few days' notice; and, also predictably, things did not go smoothly. Nevertheless, the typical Hoosier motorist — being forewarned, prepared, and sufficiently submissive — should have little difficulty. Not so for the undocumented, the hapless, and the uncooperative.

The list of documents the BMV will accept is long and complicated, and will not be recited here. In brief, the Indiana driver seeking a license renewal needs only to surrender his current driver's license and show proof of his Social Security number and two proofs of residence (utilities and tax bills accepted, correspondence not accepted). The state really wants to know where you really live, not just where you get your mail. First-time applicants for an Indiana driver's license will have to provide the above, plus an assortment of documents from a list that includes birth certificates, military identification cards, passports, immigration documents, licenses from other states, tax records, and so forth. Young people who haven't yet generated a document trail will have to provide an affidavit from their parents.

The fun begins when the BMV clerk (who may not even be a high school graduate) examines and pronounces on the documents proffered. All documents must be in English; must be original or certified copies; and must display all the requisite seals and devices that are fashionable for modern identity documents. Entrepreneurs take note: there will probably be a niche for "license brokers" who can shepherd the great unwashed through this process for a few hundred dollars or so per applicant.


From a personal viewpoint, I have no immediate problem. My license is good through 2005 and I am very well documented for almost all purposes. So I could be cavalier, but I find the whole process chilling. It reminds me of my days as an American naïf in the postwar Germany of the late '50s. I was always horrified to see the nattily dressed Grenz Polizei moving through trains and crowds demanding, for no apparent reason, to see everyone's identification: Ihre Papiere, bitte. At hotels, passports were confiscated for the duration of one's stay, and agents of the state presumably dropped by daily to look over the passports and check out the guest register. I'd seen the usual World War II movies, and I'd assumed, innocent Hoosier that I was, that all those quotidian tyrannies had been laid down by Hitler and His Henchmen, and had been repealed come Liberation. Nope. Turned out they were persistent characteristics of the classic authoritarian European state, Liberated or not.

At the time, American literature was replete with "It Can't Happen Here" cautions, but it really did seem that Americans would never ever put up with that kind of crap. But by now, facing the twin evils of global terrorism and rampant identity theft, we've come a long way from that simpler time when a peaceful individual could move around more or less anonymously in a largely agrarian society. How long will it be before before the microchip is surgically inserted in the nape of the neck and the Social Security number tattooed on the inside of the upper arm — at birth? Recent events make that possibility a legitimate topic for speculation.

Don't think in terms of old-timey cardboard. The national ID card will more likely resemble a credit card, complete with magnetic strip (perhaps linking up with that microchip in your neck — wirelessly, just like all the groovy modern tech the telescreen promotes) and do double duty as a credit card and ATM identifier. You might also be able to quickly swipe your way through airports, sports stadia, highway toll booths, and into your work station. Your gated community or apartment building might require a knowing swipe. The cleverer sort of criminal would be happy because such cards could provide wonderful alibi evidence: "Folks, I couldn't have robbed that bank in Indianapolis. I swiped my national ID card six times in San Francisco that day!" Innocent ordinary folk, naturally, would have a much tougher time spoofing their neckchip.

As for using your SSN as your national identifier, we are already over into the future, almost, and unfortunately it may work. The Social Security Act specifically prohibits such use, but — to serve you better — your government doesn't see it that way. First, the IRS demanded to share it, and then the government's big buddies, the banks, had to have it so that they could cooperate with the IRS, and now all state motor vehicle departments must have access to the Social Security database in the name of preventing identity fraud. And for the last few years, parents have been sucked into registering their infant children with SSNs (some 15 years before the kids will ever earn any wages reportable to Social Security) so the IRS can track tax claims regarding dependents.

The time has come for the Central Government to stop the charade and announce to the people: your Social Security number is your national identification number.

In line with the lowering Orwellian atmosphere, as your Social Security number is ever more widely disseminated, you are being asked to guard it ever more carefully: Don't put it on your bank checks and don't give it out indiscriminately. Your SSN will not appear on your Indiana Driver's License — but it will be in the database, available to agents of the state (or province, if you prefer).


Despite our desperate attempts to attain more of what is called "national security," we are looking at a future where security is illusory and the loss of day-to-day personal freedoms is a given. Our lives will become even less civilized, and the daily horror stories will mount. Grandmothers will be thrown up against the wall by overzealous airport-security thugs, and nursing mothers will be forced to guzzle baby formula at gunpoint, presumably to prove that it isn't part of some terrorist arsenal. Because our nation — and I don't mean just the government — has lost any faith in the individual decency and judgment of the people who populate it, all laws and regulations must be enforced robotically and administered by a huge mindless bureaucracy, full of process, full of sound and fury. We, the people, have met the enemy and, yes, the enemy is us.

August 16, 2002


© 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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